The Last Door: an interview with The Game Kitchen
The Last Door feels like a game from a bygone era, a perfectly preserved Point and Click adventure game fossil from the genre’s pre-millennium heyday. It’s familiar and nostalgic, videogame vintage you could say.
But for a game designed with such old-fashioned sensibilities, The Last Door couldn’t have been created under more contemporary circumstances. Spanish developers The Game Kitchen are a small-scale, independent studio, the kind of creative little enterprise that has flourished during the indie renaissance of recent years. And the first chapter of their pixelated horror adventure was created on the back of a successful Kickstarter campaign, run just as the crest of the crowd funding wave was reaching its peak.
I spoke to members of The Game Kitchen to find out what inspired their trip back in time and how they went about creating and designing it in the modern world.
Tell me about the history of The Game Kitchen, how did you start out?
Before we started The Game Kitchen we were a bunch of friends who really enjoyed making games as a hobby, but it wasn’t our main activity since we had jobs elsewhere. At that time we developed some games and participated in a few contests. With one of our most successful games, Rotor’scope, we won several awards (a prize at Dream.Build.Play 2009, Best Spanish Indie Game 2010, etc.) so we started to gain recognition.
This moderate success drove us to quit our boring jobs and create our own company in 2009. For the first two years we did contract work for other companies and game studios, including ports of existing games and educational titles. But at some point we decided that we wanted to do something more fulfilling, so we moved away from the contract business and started creating our own original titles like The Last Door.
The Last Door is very much a classic Point and Click adventure game, the likes of which we don’t see very often any more. Why make one now? And what did you look to for inspiration?
Enrique (our lead artist) had an idea to develop a pixelated horror game in which the player would have to use his imagination much more than he or she is used to. His pitch was to make it a kind of retro game. The rest of the team loved the idea, and we decided to travel in time and rescue that almost forgotten genre of Point and Click adventure games. Thus The Last Door was born.
So after that, and taking into account those ideas (pixel-art style, Point and Click, horror adventure game), we started to find inspiration. Most of us are heavy readers and we all liked the tense horror atmosphere of fantastic and gothic novels, especially present in the work of authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and Lovecraft. By then we had hit the nail on the head, our game had to be set in those times: at the end of the nineteenth century, in a mysterious age full of light and darkness.
Thus, and to quote Pablo Picasso: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working”, we undertook a great job of documentation. For many weeks we gathered information and researched literature about that period. We ran into hundreds of old pictures showing buildings, furniture, creepy landscapes, etc. and we also sought out newspapers, reading a lot about murders and weird stories of that era.
While The Last Door started to take shape we knew we were reaching our goal of making players feel the same as you do when you’re reading a horror novel. This is to say, making them use their imagination as the main horror engine. In the early testing of the game, we confirmed that we were on the right track since people liked that lack of detail because it stimulated their sense of fear and therefore, their enjoyment.
How do you go about designing a videogame to make it feel like horror literature?
We all read a lot and we love horror literature, that’s the main reason we wanted to recreate that bloodcurdling atmosphere, and we think it’s one of the most important aspects of this game. To do this we worked hard to design the music and the sound effects, making sure that they possessed many psycho-acoustic and psychological attributes which are really helpful in creating a mental state of unrest, and to place the player in a state of alert, making them prone to imagining dangers and threats, a characteristic state of mind when you are reading horror literature.
What about the pixelated art style. What do you think it brings to the experience?
We wanted the players to use their imagination. For this purpose, we decided to go for a pixelated art style, so that ambiguous graphics could hide and show anything at the same time, depending on the players imagination. This a commonly used technique in film (not to show the real monster/danger) so it’s not a recent thing and we didn’t invent it either. It’s been a main feature in horror literature for centuries.
Regarding pixel art, the truth is that this style fitted us in many ways. First of all the simplest reason is that we love these kind of aesthetics, as a form of art and expression. In other ways, it was perfect since we wanted the game to have this “retro” look-and-feel and, in order to emulate the classic adventures games, what else could we do?
Answering the second question and to stress the main objective of the pixelated art style: the main point was that we saw an opportunity in the pixel art to maximize the terror we wanted the player to feel. How? Well, when we were designing The Last Door, we wanted to recreate those feelings that you have when you’re reading a horror novel, in which your imagination plays a vital role, since there are no visual references and it’s the brain that generates the images, the feelings, the latent danger. Therefore, the game ends up being as scary as your own mind can imagine and we think that in that sense, we made it.
The second available chapter introduces a few new gameplay elements, with conversations and music playing in to puzzle solving. Do you intend to keep adding gameplay elements in future chapters?
Correct. We were quite satisfied with our first episode (The Letter), but we knew that we had to add some new features to reach a higher level in terms of narrative, puzzle design and creative options in general. So we worked hard to add NPC’s (Non-Playable Characters) and dialogue as well as other out-of-game initiatives targeted at our community, who are very important to us. This way, we have developed a bunch of tools to promote collaborative creation such as ‘Community Localizations’, ‘Community Descriptions’, Beta Testing Tools, a better and more functional website, our ‘Hall of Fame’, etc.
We will try to keep on innovating in-game elements, but there won’t be big changes regarding features. This is to say, that counting on all the possibilities we have right now, we can experiment with multiple options and combinations, but we don’t intend to develop new code or engine features since our plan is now to detach some resources from this project.
Why release the game episodically? Was this a creative decision or more a consequence of how the project is being funded?
Actually it’s due to both things. Initially The Last Door was designed to be a web series, and in this sense it’s influenced by TV serials techniques. That’s something that can be observed in the way we try to link different episodes with an intriguing plot-hook and even the way we display the credits directly after an impressive intro. Moreover, if the project stretches on, we could even split the game in different seasons, as TV series do.
On the other hand, it soon became logical to release the game in episodic format because of funding restrictions. This way the amount of money required to kick start the development was much lower. As the project progressed we realised that the format we went for was the correct one, where new chapters are not only bringing the story forward, but also new features and public communication. Viewed from this angle, we think we got it right.
With the advent of public funding forums like Kickstarter, do you see a future for the genre?
The Last Door was initially funded through Kickstarter, so our opinion about crowd funding platforms is highly positive. For us, Kickstarter meant a real alternative to bank loans and standard financing, especially keeping in mind the current situation of scarcity and crisis in our country. So the campaign we created on Kickstarter allowed us to start the game with dignity and it also meant a more sustainable and honest way to do business.
So yes, we think that crowd funding is a serious, alternative way of funding indie games or any other discipline. Furthermore, it also works as a kind of early gatekeeper for talent and ideas. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, indeed it’s very time consuming and stressful and not everybody meets their goals. At the end of the day you must have a good product which meets public tastes and needs, and we guess that we managed to do it.
A different way to see crowd funding is as a ‘new’ business model, where indie developers are able to pre-sell their products with no need to have strong financial muscle to develop games. Again, what we see is another entry barrier blasted away: funding.
Lowering those entry barriers allows small studios to access the market and at the same time, fosters a new type of natural selection based on creativity, innovation and talent. We are witnessing a revolutionary change in videogames and crowd funding will have a prominent role in it.
Where do you see your future as a studio?
Our future? We don’t really worry about that. We will try our best to survive in this ‘indie mode’ as long as possible. So far, we have been working for two years independently and we intend to keep on doing it for a while. It’s not easy but we have the necessary tools to battle it out and The Last Door is starting to be economically viable so our prospects are positive.